Tabuse shooting for spot on national team

by Kaz Nagatsuka

After a nearly 20-month absence from action, the Japan men’s basketball team is back with a big attraction in Yuta Tabuse, and is trying to move on to the next level with the one-time phenom.

Tabuse played in exhibition games with the national team in 1998, when he was at Noshiro Technical High School in Akita Prefecture, but would make his debut with the top squad if he makes the cut for the upcoming FIBA East Asia Championship in Komaki, Aichi Pref., in June.

(He had played on the Under-21 national team in 2001.)

“This is Japan’s top team and that’s why I feel motivation as well as joy,” the 28-year-old Tabuse, a Link Tochigi Brex guard in the JBL, said in an interview with The Japan Times during a recent training camp session at the National Training Center in Tokyo.

“And at the same time, I feel responsibility — different responsibility from what I feel on the team (Brex).”

Perhaps Tabuse felt that heavy burden three years ago. He was invited to be on the national team’s provisional roster, led by Croatian Zeljko Pavlicevic, for the 2006 FIBA World Championship in Japan.

But he turned down the offer because he was focusing on playing in an NBA summer league at that time.

“I wish I could’ve played (in the World Championship),” Tabuse said. “But I wanted to play in a summer league. I mean, I wanted to do them both. But it was just not the right timing and it was a heartbreaking decision.”

On the day of our interview, Tabuse did not participate in full-squad training due to a right ankle injury he suffered at the end of the JBL regular season, which concluded in March. He just went through light exercises.

“It’s more fun to play than watch,” he said.

Despite the late start, however, Tabuse still seemed as if he was looking forward to the latest challenge of representing Japan, perhaps because it is something he had not done much in his decorated career.

The team, meanwhile, has great expectations of him as well. New coach David Hobbs is certainly aware of the point guard’s abilities.

There was a scene where, right after an afternoon session wrapped up, Hobbs stopped Tabuse and began relaying a short tip to him so that they could share ideas on what the whole squad was going through under the floor general.

“We confirmed the formations we went through today,” Tabuse said of the one-on-one moment with Hobbs.

According to Tabuse, he and Hobbs held the conversation on how the team’s up-tempo offense is run if he’s on the floor.

“It was for me to make sure about what I was observing from the sidelines,” Tabuse said. “Also, we confirmed what kind of options we have in the game. Obviously, it’s not the same to actually be on the floor.”

The national team’s present task is to finish among the top two at the East Asia Championship in order to qualify for August’s FIBA Asia Championship in Tianjin, China, where the top three finishers will clinch berths to the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Turkey.

But ultimately, Tabuse’s individual goal is probably not there. Naturally, what his eyes remain set on is once again reaching the the sport’s summit, the NBA.

So, in a sense, his involvement on the national team is a good opportunity to showcase himself, as he would like to return to the United States.

And the team would also benefit from it, because if Tabuse plays better, it can help the group ascend to the next level.

Tabuse understands this point.

“It can call attention (toward me) to play at the international level,” he said. “(But) Japan’s level is not quite there yet, so I would like to show off performances in order to bring the team up to ‘there.’ “

Hobbs also called up top point guards like Shinsuke Kashiwagi (Aisin Sea Horses, the JBL’s 2007-08 regular-season MVP) and Kei Igarashi (Hitachi Sunrockers) to the national squad.

Along with Tabuse, they both consistently utilize impressive speed in their games.

So even if Tabuse makes the final 12-man roster, it’s not guaranteed he will get the starting spot at the point.

There are things, however, in which Tabuse has the edge over the other point guards.

Specifically, mental toughness, gained from his experience in America, gives him an edge in that area.

Tabuse’s tenure with the Phoenix Suns did not last long (he only played four games with the club in 2004-05), but he has played at many different places before and after the NBA.

(He also signed with the Denver Nuggets in 2003 and the Los Angeles Clippers in 2005, but both times was released before the season openers).

Tabuse, who has been in the spotlight since he was at Noshiro Technical, has played for the Long Beach Jam (ABA), Albuquerque Thunderbirds (NBA Development League), Bakersfield Jam (NBADL) and Anaheim Arsenal (NBADL).

“If I didn’t have those experiences, I wouldn’t have understood American basketball,” he recalled. “Also, other than the game itself, I wouldn’t have understood about the life in the States, what kind of steps I would have to take, and what kind of world (the NBA) is, if I didn’t obtain experience in the minor (leagues).”

Yet speaking of mentality, Tabuse humbly stated that his mind-set is not as tough as other Japanese-born athletes competing abroad, citing Ichiro Suzuki’s case in the recent World Baseball Classic.

“Compared to Ichiro, who came through in the last minute, I still have a long way to go,” Tabuse said, referring to the superstar’s clutch 10th-inning hit in the WBC final. “I couldn’t bring the team (Brex) to the playoffs, and that makes me think that I still need to improve my mental attitude as well as (my basketball) skills.”

Tabuse did, however, lead the JBL in assists (5.6 per game) and steals (2.3) while playing for Brex, who went 16-19.

He added: “I don’t know much about baseball, but it was fun to watch wondering what kind of mentality they had or how they played as a team.”

Finally, asked if he feels a sense of urgency to achieve his dreams as time keeps ticking on his career, Tabuse laughingly dismissed the idea.

“If I think I’m not capable, then maybe I attribute it to my age,” he said. “I don’t feel anything like that for the time being. Rather, I feel that I don’t want to go behind these young guys (on the national team), and it’s becoming a motivation for me.”